Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 11/26/2000
As we prepare for the celebration of Advent, we depart from our series on I Timothy to survey the Christmas narrratives in Luke's gospel, which begin by rooting the coming of our Lord in both the Old Testament revelation and contemporary Jewish worship.
The whole Old Testament was indeed one long preparation for the coming of Messiah. In Gen. 3:15 we have the first promise of a coming Savior, who would crush the head of the Edenic Serpent, reversing for his people the effects of Adam's rebellion. Then Abraham was called to form a nation who would know God, whose history, culture, and religion would enable the whole world to make sense of the Messiah when he came. The nation of Israel began with the first of a series of supernatural births--Isaac, Samson, Samuel--which would culminate in the familiar ones in Luke: John the Baptist, Jesus. They did not happen out of the blue, but were recognizable as the last steps in a pattern God has used of old to create his people and raise up deliverers for them. Their whole history--Passover, Exodus, Sinai--revealed God and his covenant. The Davidic kingdom was a foreshadowing of the rule of Messiah, who would arise from David's line. And the Prophets promised a coming one--Davidic King, Son of Man, Suffering Servant, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace--who would deliver God's people once again.
Now we have entered the last stage. For 400 years the Prophets have been silent. Rome rules the world with an iron fist, and the Jews ask, "When will the promised King come to deliver us?"--little knowing their need for deliverance from a greater Enemy than Rome. An obscure priest named Zacharias comes to Jerusalem to take his turn in the Temple service. There are now too many descendants of Levi for them all to serve regularly, so most of them wait a lifetime for the opportunity to offer up incense upon the altar. This was the climax of Zacharias' life. As he enters the holy place, a crowd of the devout and those who would appear devout gather in the courtyard to pray. A bell rings to signal that Zacharias has placed the incense upon the flames, symbolic of the prayers of the people. A dead silence falls. The people wait for the priest to reappear and pronounce God's blessing upon them. But nothing happens. They begin to grow nervous.
Inside, Zacharias has been confronted by a being who looks like a man, but who exudes a more than human aura of power, who simply and suddenly was there without having come, and who says to him, "Fear not!" You will have a son, and name him John. And he will be the Forerunner foretold of old. And Zacharias remembered the very last prophecy of the Old Testament, Malachi 4:5-6, and knew that his son would be its fulfillment. And that he himself would very likely live to see the Messiah of Israel.
If you are a parent, try to remember when you first heard the news you were going to have a baby. If you are not, try to imagine it. Oh, the questions that go through your mind! Will it be a boy or a girl? Will it be healthy? Will it look like me? What kind of person will it grow up to be? Then you hear the heartbeat, feel the kicking, and the questions all come back again. Imagine Zacharianas getting answers to them which point to the greatness not only of John but also of the One for whom he was coming to prepare the way.
Zacharianas was told, first, that John would be GREAT IN THE SIGHT OF GOD. In men's eyes, he was only a flash in the pan. A prophet who began with great promise and a huge following, he came to a bad end, came to nothing. He wrote no books, appeared on no talkshows, appeared on no lists of the pastors with the 10 largest Sunday Schools in America. Yet in God's eyes he was great. In fact, Jesus said that he was the greatest man ever born of woman. What did Jesus mean by that? Well, think of Jesus' own criterion of greatness: "He who would be great among you, let him be the servant of all." John was a perfect exemplar of this radical definition of greatness, for it fell to him to utter the most noble words ever to come from the mouth of man: "He must increase, but I must decrease." To say that of Jesus and truly to mean it is to be great in the eyes of God. Is that the way we feel about Jesus? Or is our concern, even in his service, that we increase, that people say how spiritual we are? May we decrease into greatness as John did!
Secondly, John would drink NO WINE OR STRONG DRINK. The point of this is not that John was a teetotaler, but rather that he lived a totally dedicated life. Probably he took a Nazirite vow, in which he gave up something he and his culture would have considered a blessing from God as a sign of his radical dedication to the Lord. This is a second reason for his greatness: he was utterly singleminded in the pursuit of his goal, that Jesus would increase and he would decrease. Nothing was allowed to compete with this; nothing would be in his life which did not contribute to this end, nothing which would hinder his singleminded devotion to his purpose for existing. And here again he serves as an example for us.
Third, he was FILLED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT FROM HIS MOTHER'S WOMB. I must confess I do not fully comprehend this. It is not the norm for how the Spirit comes to indwell us. But clearly John was marked out by God as a special insrument of his purposes from the beginning. He had an unusual sensitivity to spiritual things, which even allowed him to recognize his Lord and leap for joy in Elizabeth's womb when Mary came into the room on a visit in her first month of pregnancy. Well, if we cannot be like John from the womb, we can still recognize this as another sign of his greatness, and recognize with it the importance of being filled with the Spirit, i.e., completely under his control, submitted to his influence, yielded to his purposes in our lives, from this point on.
Fourth, John would be a WITNESS (v. 16-17). The last of the Old Testament Prophets was also the first of the New Testament Witnesses. He would turn back many, make the people ready for the Messiah, prepare his way. Many in Israel wanted to do this. The Essenes separated themselves from society to purify themselves in the desert, believing that if they could make themselves worthy, Messiah would come. Had not the Rabbis said that "When all Israel repents, then will Messiah come?" Had they not said, "If even one Jew should repent perfectly in his heart, then would Messiah come?" But these people, zealous and sincere, did not pursue righteousness with understanding, i.e., by faith, but as if it were by law. Repentance is not the Cause of Messiah's coming but its Effect. When God was ready to send Him, he also sent the Forerunner to preach repentance. And Israel as a whole rejected this message. Was Gabriel's prophecy false? No. Look at John 1:35-37. The core of Jesus' band of 12 disciples were former disciples of John. One may well believe that the same was true of the 70 and the 500 who were faithful to the Lord. Now, we too are to be witnesses to the fact that God grants repentance AND forgiveness in Jesus' name, to prepare our own generation for His coming--whether to their hearts in faith or to the world when He comes again.
CONCLUSION: We have seen something of the greatness of this last of the Old Testament Prophets and first of the New Testament Witnesses. But Jesus also said, "He who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he." Least in the Kingdom of Heaven: if greatness comes by decreasing that Jesus might increase, then that is an honor to aspire to indeed.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams